To Helvetica in a Handbasket

Umberto Eco has noticed that children aren’t learning penmanship anymore.  (This is not true in my son’s case, since he was taught to write in cursive before he learned to print, but I know it’s true for many.)  Perhaps, Eco speculates, the art of penmanship will evolve into a sort of boutique hobby or extra-curricular activity like stamp collecting or fencing.  ‘Humanity,’ he says, ‘has learned to rediscover as sports and aesthetic pleasures many things that civilization had eliminated as unnecessary.’

It very much makes a difference, when reading something written by hand, whether the words are composed in block letters or cursive.  The performance of a sentence on a page is like the performance of a musical composition.  The same series of notes might be played on either clarinet or violin, but we will hear and interpret them differently.  Skill in execution will count for something too: pianists delivering notationally-identical glissandi may by their skill or lack of it whip up a confectionary delight – or a frothy mess.  Penmanship works in the same way.
And so does typeface.  Wounds are still seeping over the Futura/Verdana kerfuffle that made news recently.  And it’s a fact that Moby Dick printed in Caslon is a much better book than Moby Dick printed in Rockwell.  (Variations in typeface can result in variant readings and may, I think, account for the bibliophile’s need to collect favorite titles in multiple editions.)  It’s ironic I should hold forth here in godless Arial, I know.  Someday I’ll have to improve my style guide for The New Psalmanazar and do my part to avert the awful doom of a sans-serif world.


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